What are “Information Needs?” How do we Design for Them?

Peter JonesDesign for Care, Information Ecology

Information seeking theories often refer to the concept of information needs, a presumed cognitive state wherein an individual’s need state triggers the search behavior characteristic of information seeking in a given context. While terms such as these have migrated from a common theory to everyday colloquial use, their use in design research should be questioned and evaluated as in any research. There are other lenses to view behavior that focus on motive, goals, activity contexts, but not necessarily “need,” whether information or other personal need.

Information need goes back to a definition from Taylor’s (1962!) article “The Process of Asking Questions” which describes four types:

  • The actual, but unexpressed, need for information (the visceral need)
  • The conscious, within-brain description of the need (the conscious need)
  • The formal statement of the question (the formalized need)
  • The question as presented to the information system (the compromised need).

Taylor’s points are important because they have been cited continuously for 50 years, and have acquired even more validity due to their increasing citation in current research. Taylor distinguished four information needs from an information perspective in 1962, well before cognitive psychologists researched information interaction.

Let’s consider how we might design for consumer health services based on knowing information need. Individuals may be seeking information to inform the many issues that arise in the context of a health situation. More recently, Paula Ormandy (2010) clarified information needs from a patient’s perspective as:

“the recognition that their knowledge is inadequate to satisfy a goal, within the context / situation that they find themselves at a specific point in time.”

Information need is not a simple construct and remains a continually researched concept, as signaled by the recent Ormandy paper. Healthcare professionals are increasingly interested in the information seeking of patients, since these patterns reveal helpful interests of the patient. Information and service designers must recognize the differences in information form and intent presented to patients and care professionals. What is explicitly sought may not prompt the most fruitful search.

What is involved in health-seeking from an information design perspective? Coulter’s research (1999) still holds as people have increasingly shifted their information behavior from professionals or libraries to the Web and the hundreds of health-oriented websites that have emerged since then. Coulter lists 12 motivators for health information seeking, giving designers a simple framework for patient information needs :

  1. Understand what is wrong
  2. Gain a realistic idea of prognosis
  3. Make the most of consultations
  4. Understand the processes and likely outcomes of possible tests and treatments
  5. Assist in self-care
  6. Learn about available services and sources of help
  7. Provide reassurance and help to cope
  8. Help others understand
  9. Legitimize seeking help and their concerns
  10. Learn how to prevent further illness
  11. Identify further information and self-help groups
  12. Identify the best health-care providers

Health Information Seeking is Making Sense of Another World

But information seeking can be a messy journey in reality. Searches and sources lead a seeker to unexpected resources, information “places” and objects that draw attention and bias or bend the journey to different perspectives.

Confirmation biases orient the seeker toward locating good news, or confirming opinions from sources agreeing with a user’s context of hope or positive expectation. Information objects are not static data (or a stock) but are more of a flow, a constantly evolving process of informing that people construct in interaction from their needs, contexts, experience and background. Encounters with information are “informing” and multidirectional. These encounters help a person make sense of their world, as they choose materials that support a perspective and help them repair the many gaps between their worldview (or mental model) and the world as presented in the informing process.

The Utility of Information Seeking Models

The 12 motivators from Coulter suggest ways in which a new service (think PHR) can be evaluated. First, think actions in an activity system, not motivators per se. Then consider the opportunities a patient might be given for furthering their control or insight into health situations beyond the actions currently supported.  A PHR (Personal Heath Records system such as Microsoft Health Vault) might support actions 3-5. How would you extend the PHR to further enhance personal health by responding to information seeking?

  • Actions 1-3 might connect to a patient version clinical informatics resources that addressed queries by linking to keywords or formulating searches from PHR information.
  • Actions 6-8 might connect to various health social resources available on the web, based on a clear priority of a health condition or the diagnoses in the PHR.
  • Actions 9-10 might connect to different educational resources or web communities as well.
  • Actions 11-12 could obviously connect the PHR user to other clinical resources available in the geographical region, or to second opinion resources such as the Cleveland Clinic’s My Consult service.